En Esperando: The Search for Ayahuasca
I’m not going to tell you what I saw when I took Ayahuasca.
You may have heard tell of alien spirits, impossible geometry and a giant snake slithering towards you. Sure, with proper context, such tales can be illuminating. Usually, though, they’re just distractions. Psychedelic fodder to fuel the desire for a “crazy trip” on a jaunt through South America.
But plant medicine has been used in the Americas for thousands of years in deeply spiritual contexts. It’s only in the last half-century that Western tourists have triggered its growth as a commercial industry. There are posters advertising ceremonies on every corner of Peruvian cities like Cusco and Iquitos. Tourists discuss their experiences in the same breath as cocaine-fuelled nights out. Initially, it all felt a little… off.
It was only after I took the time to research and discuss more widely that I began to consider partaking. Traditional ceremonies are still practiced in local communities. They are far cheaper – sometimes even free – but can also be more difficult to find, requiring local connections and less planning in advance.
Then there is the tourist’s way – expensive and easy to find. Such offerings can range from well-intentioned, approachable experiences to over-priced, money-making operations and outright scams. It is important to understand this and to be fully satisfied with the individuals in whom you are placing your trust for what can be an incredibly difficult, intimate or ecstatic experience.
Such ceremonies are not simply thrill-rides. They are deep and delicate operations of the mind, not to be entered into on a whim. As such, they are starkly incompatible with the trends of fast tourism.
Of course, the appeal of convenience is understandable. Weeks of searching for the right option was at times confusing and frustrating. I was already observing a strict diet in preparation. No salt, sugar, oil or spices. No processed food or animal products of any kind. No alcohol, drugs, or sex. No coffee. Even avocado was said to have too much fat – almost a deal-breaker for an inner-city Melburnian. For 10 days, I was fasting and otherwise living off broccoli, chickpeas, nuts and grains.
The retreat I eventually discovered came at the recommendation of a local friend, and was located in a riverside eco-lodge nestled in a tranquil, forested valley. Our guide was a Dutchman named Hilvert, a former economist who had settled in the area 10 years earlier after marrying a local and starting a family. For me, he represented a good bridge between the authentic traditions and a more familiar perspective.
We had the rest of the afternoon to wander the valley and reflect on our reasons for being there. As night fell, we began the ceremony. Rapé – a type of tobacco powder that is blown through a small pipe into the nostrils – was applied. It sears through the lungs, bringing the mind and body into a dizzy, eye-watering state of alertness.
Then, in our own time, we arrived in a small room with three cushioned places for sitting and a mattress if we needed to lie down. Idols of the Buddha and other masters lined a shelf, alongside the skull of a puma. The medicine was prepared by candlelight, alongside buckets and rolls of toilet paper.
We stated our intentions and prayed to the spirits of the plant for guidance. Then, we drank one cup of the bitter medicine.
It’s hard to know how long we waited. Our guide sung icaros – healing songs – and played musical instruments. He applied incense and oil, brushed us with leaves, blew smoke and clicked in circles around our heads.
Eventually, the other participant keeled over and vomited into his bucket. Soon after, I became aware of a dark sphere floating above my head, always at the uppermost periphery of my vision. It began to descend before me with all the massive negativity of a black hole, drawing me down with it until I was completely hunched over my rapidly deteriorating stomach. Profound sadness came over me. Flames of anger licked at my guts and pity washed through my heart.
All of this I merely observed. I shirked from nothing, rejected nothing, physical or emotional. Finally, the black sphere came to rest in my belly. I was doubled over it completely, like a child cuddling a pet in his lap, examining it intimately. I don’t know if it spoke, but somehow, a message of words echoed through my mind. I listened as faithfully as I could while nausea flooded my body.
When the purge came, it came as a relief. The heaviness of the void was ejected from my body in the form of black bile. For a while, all I could do was lean over the bucket and contemplate the vomit. Always an insightful moment, no matter the context. Satisfied with the work, I lay back and closed my eyes. Suddenly, I was in another world.
Behind the dark of my eyelids, I soared through fractal spires and kaleidoscope skies. Bison skulls wearing feathered head-dresses sat in council and observed me from a place just above my sight. Though they spoke no words, I felt distinctly the sensation of being communicated with. It occurred to me that I might ask them questions, but I was content simply to observe, to experience whatever might come. My mouth gaped. It as though they were pouring something down my throat, like a golden, milky nectar.
I must have sat like that for hours, head lolling, jaw hanging. Receiving this jungle ambrosia and giggling like an idiot. The sadness, the heaviness, all had evaporated, leaving only gratitude and love.
Eventually, the visions began to fade. I lay down and drifted into contemplation. My life floated into a wide, clear perspective. A nexus of hopes and memories, desires and pain. Clear light pierced into many of the issues I had been contemplating in the weeks before the ceremony.
The ceremony had lasted almost eight hours. It was said that the medicine would continue to work for several days more, as all that we had experienced solidified into place.
Okay, so I ended up telling you about the crazy spirit aliens I met and the hexagonal labyrinths I flew through on my jungle trip. Hopefully, though, you can see them in their proper context. I came away from the ceremony light on a fountain of energy and filled with ideas and resolutions. But I also came away from it with a greater appreciation for the significance of the ritual setting in which it is practiced, as well as the sensitivity, skill and wisdom of the one who administers it.
Disciplined preparation, appropriate execution and committed integration are all just as important as the application of the medicine itself. If you really want to experience just how profound an ayahuasca ceremony can be, you owe it to yourself to undertake it seriously.
And do me a favour: don’t be like the Aussie tourist I met in the Sacred Valley, who told me, “The only things to do around here are look at ruins and take ayahuasca.”